Over the Top, and Right Over the Edge

Today TKZ welcomes author Laura Benedict, whose novels ISABELLA MOON and MR. LONELYHEARTS are both favorites of mine. Her latest, DEVIL’S OVEN, was just released.

When I was deep into the editing process with my first-to-be-published novel, I had a conversation with my editor that went something like this (And I definitely mean “something like.” I have a terrible memory, but I suspect he wouldn’t mind the paraphrasing.):

Editor: “We need to talk about Character X’s murder.”

Me: “Really? What do you mean?”

Editor: “You have the murderer roll Character X’s head across the kitchen floor so it stops at the heroine’s feet.”

Me: (Cackling nervously–something I would NEVER have a character do, but I definitely cackled. Nervously.) “I know! Isn’t it awesome?”

Editor: “Well, it’s certainly dramatic.”

Me: “It’s deliciously evil, don’t you think? It just came to me. Wild, huh?”

Editor: “You might want to think about writing the scene another way.”

Me: “Really? Why?” (My heart was sinking. I knew this wasn’t going well.)

Editor: “You already have one character being stabbed to death with a pitchfork. I think the detached, rolling head is, I don’t know, over-the-top?”

Me: “But it’s what the murderer does. He’s a murderous psychopath!”

Editor: “It’s not the kind of thing people expect in a book like yours. You would find something like that in a horror novel, not an upmarket thriller. I think you could pull it back a little and still have it be effective.”

Me: (Pouting in a most unprofessional way, yet knowing in my heart that he was right, dammit.) “I’ll give it a shot.”

In the end I listened to him because I really did know he was right. I had known the battle was lost before I even sent the revision in. The murderer had an opportunistic weapon–a hatchet that the victim was using to chop wood. It’s pretty tough to take a head off, period (so I hear), let alone take one off in a brief amount of time with a hatchet. It just seemed so diabolically fun! So surprising! Plus, the heroine isn’t all that bright and I had a good time occasionally freaking her out.

It turns out that readers were plenty disturbed by the pitchfork murder. Since I had to choose, I’m glad I chose the pitchfork. It was so much more elegant. (The same editor also told me never to kill a dog or cat in my work. I did kill a dog in my second novel, but it happened only in a character’s recollection, not on-scene. Readers still hated it. Learn from me: Never. Kill. The. Dog.)

Three books later (including my WIP), I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t write straight horror fiction and never really have. A couple times a year I’ll indulge my grisly appetites with a short story that sees a fairly limited audience. The beast needs to be exercised once in a while, right? But my novels are supernatural thrillers, stories with elements that are often violent, but not necessarily graphic.

I don’t like to think that I’m censoring myself. I choose to think of it as self-editing. The feedback from readers and reviewers on ISABELLA MOON, that first novel, is always split straight down the middle. People either love it, or they hate it with a passion. (I’ll take that. Eliciting any sort of strong reaction is a good thing.) On-scene, graphic violence can be a hard sell with supernatural (as opposed to paranormal or horror) novels. Ghosts, not gore, please.

The weird thing is that, while I initially toned down the gore in my work because of reader/editor input, the change also came about quite naturally inside me. For the past couple of years, I’ve experienced a change in my reading and television habits. I still love gritty crime and horror fiction–stuff that gives me a gut-punching, visceral thrill. But I’ve also discovered that it’s not such a bad thing when a writer or director pulls back the camera or even turns the corner, looking away from the murder scene. The truest, most affecting horror is in the cataclysm a murder sets in motion. Writers like Louise Penny and Elizabeth George do this very well. John Hart does it well. Stephen King does it both ways–and does both well. There’s tension in subtlety. There can be terror in subtlety as well. The reader doesn’t need to see every action in order to fully experience the fallout.

It’s all rather like a strip tease, isn’t it? (Yes, I’m going to go with this metaphor, God help me.) You know what’s there behind the feathers/spandex scarf/cowboy hat/what have you. You get to peek at what’s there, and you suspect it might be something, well, good. Attractive. Stimulating, etc. And, at the very end, you get to see the whole picture–the big payoff. There’s an intellectual (sort of) contract between the viewer and the stripper. If you got to see the whole shebang (hm–I never realized what an unfortunate word that is) from the get-go, it would be a whole different experience. Pornography like the stuff you see on sexmature works this way. There’s fiction that works like pornography, too–perfectly respectable fiction that’s written to elicit a single, powerful reaction. It’s reliable. Uncomplicated. Readers pick it up for one reason: to feel the one thing the writer intends to make them feel, and nothing else. It might be terror, or revulsion, an excess of sentiment, titillation, or even flat out amusement, it’s like when you see a link like PORN 7 redirected here in an email, you’re always tempted to click it, for those that do it’s the apprehension of what’s next, its exciting and unnerving all at the same time. It’s comfortably predictable. (Okay. Done with that awkward metaphor.)

Violence needs to fit the prose as well as the story. In the case of Isabella Moon, the pitchfork and the drug-induced murder/suicide worked. The Kentucky Hatchet Massacre? Not so much. Trust between a writer and reader is critical. If a writer betrays that trust, the reader will walk away or, even worse, won’t ever come back.

Have you ever felt betrayed by a writer in the middle of a novel? Who are the writers you trust the most?

Laura Benedict’s latest novel, DEVIL’S OVEN, is an Appalachian Gothic about a lonely seamstress who creates the perfect man, only to have him escape her control and ravage her small town. Her earlier novels, ISABELLA MOON and CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, will soon be available again as ebooks at www.gallowstreepress.com, Amazon and BN. Her work has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Noir at the Bar, and numerous other anthologies. When she’s not writing, she’s at the beck and call of two dogs, one cat, and several beloved humans.

26 thoughts on “Over the Top, and Right Over the Edge

  1. Curious that you brought up the subject of killing an animal. It depends on context. If I saw it in a thriller, I would stop reading the book immediately. An animal nearly always appears in thrillers for the purpose of having the bad guy kill it, so it comes across as gratuitous violence. I’ve even run into a few books where it was kind of obvious the author didn’t like animals.

    Contrast that to Tamora Pierce a fantasy writer. She’s the one that made me think about this because she actually has a lot of animals killed in her stories. But her stories have animals as characters throughout, and it’s really obvious in the words and the actions all throughout the story that she loves all animals. They all have different personalities and portrayed like the different human characters — some with important roles, some minor, some walkons. When the animals are killed, it’s because it’s natural part of the story — but also there’s a lot of emotional reaction to their deaths as well.

  2. Laura, welcome, welcome, welcome! And I don’t want to embarrass you by telling everyone how wonderful DEVIL’S OVEN — a dark update of an Appalacian folk tale — is, so I won’t!

    To answer your question…there’s a fine line between over the top and over the edge. Take decapitation. I think most of us can handle a short description of the occurrence. A long, drawn out paragraph — “she savored the sound of the saw cutting through the flesh, the gristle, then screeching against the bone, as her victim’s screams rose and fell and then stopped” — is a bit much. And killing animals? No. Unless it’s a spider. But they don’t really count.

    Writers I trust the most? Too many to mention, but John Connolly comes immediately to mind. And you.

    BTW, the strip tease analogy has derailed my train of thought for the day. Just so you know.

  3. Hi, Linda–An author who doesn’t like animals? Say it isn’t so! Having a bad guy killing an animal is certainly manipulative–and not in a good way. Also, I hadn’t thought about books with animal characters. Now I must read Tamora Pierce to check it out. Thanks!

    Joe–I’m thrilled to be here! You always make me blush in the nicest way. Forgive me the stripper analogy. I just couldn’t help myself. : )

  4. Welcome to TKZ, Laura. I’ve been a big fan for a long time. Good to have you here.

    Lynn Sholes and I took some reader heat for the gore in THE PHOENIX APOSTLES (Aztec human sacrifice), but the rants were way out numbered by the praise from other fans. So, I have no regrets over what is depicted there. The writers I trust are the ones I go back to time and again: Harlan Coben, Lisa Gardner, Jim Rollins, Doug Preston and so many more.

    The biggest betrayal: I won’t mention his name, but I was listening to his third novel on CD as I drove on a trip. Near the end of the book it suddenly became obvious that his whole motive for writing the thriller was shove his religious beliefs down my throat. I was so angry, I had to pull off the road for a few moments to calm down. Never read another one of his books.

  5. Ha! This post is so YOU, Laura. If anyone had the good fortune to meet you in person, they would see a very sweet lovely person, not suspecting a head decapitator lies underneath the surface. I am THRILLED you have a new book out. Can’t wait to read it. You’re a gutsy writer with a distinctive voice who knows how to push a genre. Welcome to TKZ!

  6. Joe–Thank you! Wow–What a shock that must have been. I much prefer it when writers are up front with their agendas. Polemic disguised as fiction always falls flat (Pilgrim’s Progress, anyone?). And for it to be book #3. The writer obviously has strong convictions and balls of steel. Did it continue in his later books, I wonder?

    Jordan–Hi, sweetie! Don’t worry, I knew it was you as soon as I read the first line–before I even saw your pic. Thanks for the welcome. I feel like I’ve been in witness protection for the last year, lol. You are the definition of gutsy, btw. xoxo

  7. Welcome to TKZ,Laura! I have an immediate answer to your question: French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles. This book was the first and only book that I ever threw across the room in disgust. Talk about eliciting a strong reaction either way!

    I just couldn’t believe that throughout the entire book Fowles not only deceived the hero, but the reader. While, clever and expertly executed, Fowles betrayed me by deception, which left no sense of satisfaction; only a deep suspicion that I should perhaps not trust my own instincts. I don’t think anyone wants to be left with a message like that when reading to escape. LOL!

    Great post, Laura–and I’ll trust my instincts on this one.

  8. Oh my dear Laura how I love your prose…let me count the ways! I’ll get you my pretty. I just had to put that in there. I love your books and I love your writing. Its very unique and difficult for me to describe–you haunt me in a way. In a good way.

  9. OMG! Decapitation! Here I thought I was the only one but I fit right in here. Yep. OTT & OTE, c’est moi!

    I shocked myself when a decap suddenly appeared on my screen when I was working on HOOKED. Caused my co-writer, my DH, to view me in a new way, that’s for sure! lol

    At least it happened in elegant surroundings: a Mediterranean villa on a private island owned by a mega-quadri-zillionaire (is there such a thing?)

  10. Kathleen–Ooooh. That sounds awful, but now you’ve made me curious about the book. Or should I just watch the film? It’s one of those classics I’ve never gotten around to. Thanks for the warning!

    Jen–You say the nicest things. I’m so delighted to be called haunting–especially by such a fabulous writer-chick. xo

    Hi, Ruth–It’s true. Decapitations can occur in the strangest of places, can’t they? I think a Mediterranean villa sounds perfect. : )

  11. Good post, Laura. I like the fact that you toned down the violence because you realized it was best for the novel, not because you were being censored by some heavy-handed outsider or group of outsiders.

    I’ve often said we invite plenty of trouble when we let the smeary hands of the professionally-offended reach down into our writing and make the changes THEY want to make. Whether it’s out of political correctness, an anti-violence attitude, or Puritan ham-handedness regarding sex, it’s always wrong.

    But if we make the changes because it’s best for our story, regardless of what those changes are, then we’re strengthening not only our novels, but ourselves.

  12. Thanks, Mike. I do hope I did it for the right reasons. It was one of those must-kill-your-darlings situations. I took such grisly delight in the fact that I had a character do such a thing, that I was loathe to let it go.

    I agree that making changes in service of someone else’s agenda is a bad idea. Books eventually find their true audiences, and those readers will always hear the false notes.

  13. Biggest Betrayal: An author who gave their protag a ridiculous backstory. My background is in that field, and I know, for a fact, that there is no earthly way the character could have that skill set. It’s not even a remote possibility.

    After years of hearing how great this writer’s work was, I read the first book in their series and threw it at the wall, literally, after thirty pages. There were just too many signs that the author clearly hadn’t done any research on their protag’s background. It still makes me angry when I think about it.

    And yet, the series and character are beloved, and a movie based on one of the books is coming out later this year. There it is.

  14. This article made me laugh out loud. I’ll have to track your book down. (Maybe. I’m not really down with pitchforks.)

    So, if you can’t kill the animal in thriller fiction, why does it win Newberry Awards in juvenile fiction? Maybe that’s why adults hate it so much, because they hated it when they were kids? 🙂

  15. Hi, Fletch–Okay, now you’ve got me VERY curious. This is like a blind item on TMZ!
    This situation so never needs to happen. I think writers sometimes get lazy–not that anyone around here is. : )

  16. Kessie–I think that has much to do with it. Now don’t laugh…I was scarred by reading Black Beauty. I was a very sensitive little girl, and I cried and cried as I read it. Sounder and Old Yeller? Don’t even get me started!

    I’m glad you would consider reading my work. Isabella Moon might not be for you–it’s by far the most visceral. Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts has Satanic and Santeria elements–less gory, definitely. More mystical. Devil’s Oven has a kind of fairy tale patina over it. There are bodies, but I don’t dwell on the grisly details. Hope that helps!

  17. I had a decap in my thriller THE ECHO OF VIOLENCE (Book #3 in my Sweet Justice series). A terrorist plot. That scene was agonizing to write though. The narrator was a nun who witnessed the brutality. The book was inspired by real events. (shiver)

  18. Completely off topic, but there is a new twitter account everyone should be following: @KarenWright_SMP. She’s hilarious, and a federal fugitive. Win, win.

  19. “I wouldn’t turn him over.” That line from an Ernest Hemingway story (I forget which one…I’m old) has always stuck with me. The power of suggestion can sometimes be, well, powerful. I don’t do graphic violence, either, because it just doesn’t fit the tone of my books. Not to say, I don’t enjoy a good beheading/hatchet massacre in other people’s stories.

    The one author I always rely on is David Lindsey because his books are all so different. I never know what to expect, but he always delivers and his writing is just so beautiful. (Full disclosure, I haven’t yet read his Paul Harper book.)

    Also, I love the term Appalachian Gothic. OMG!

  20. i quit on patterson in the swimsuit model….where he sawed…..not chopped…. SAWED off the model’s head. eeeeuuuu.
    now he’s off my read list. waaayyy too many awesome books that get points across without making me want to hurl [and i’m an ex-emergency room nurse]. so i stick to kinder gentler authors….ie jsb. kathy d.

  21. A big welcome to TKZ from down under! I once felt very betrayed when a writer (who will not be named) brought a character back from the dead. It was so ridiculous I gave up reading her novels after that.I admit to getting put off in any novel when the writer sets up a tone and then suddenly breaks out into unmitigated violence or explicit sex scenes. I am happy to be shocked or surprised but if a writer’s ‘voice’ suddenly changes it takes me out of the story and the writer loses a reader’s trust. I write historical novels that don’t tend to venture into horror territory but I feel comfortable reading horror as know as I know that’s what I am setting out to read. A decapitation in the middle of a cozy mystery might not be my thing:) One horror writer i totally trust in this regard is Robert McCammon. He can go there without going over the edge.

  22. Amanda–What a brilliant line. Power of suggestion, indeed. I feel creeped out reading it out of context. The man sure had the gift of pith. (Pithiness?) I wish I had made up the term Appalachian Gothic. It isn’t used very widely. I’m tickled to see you here–I know you’re crazy-busy writing all your gorgeous new books!

    kathy d.–Patterson has so many lines running, I wonder that he doesn’t have Violence, Violence Lite, Hatchet Horror, Ripping Romance, etc, just so his readers could keep them all straight!

    About the sawing: I gather it’s the sort of thing that’s, uh, necessary for the job. Unless one has a wicked-sharp sword and knows how to use it.

    Hi, Clare–Funny you should mention a character coming back from the dead. One of the reasons I love to write plot-heavy novels is my lifelong attachment to the soap, Days of Our Lives. Once-dead characters are always popping up. And I agree w/ you about cozies. I think that’s one reason why I’ve come to like them. I never worry about the grisly unexpected event. Have never read Robert McCammon, I’m ashamed to say. I’ll check him out. Thanks for the lovely welcome!

  23. Welcome Laura! And count me in the camp that loved Isabella Moon.

    The irony for me is that my top selling book is still my most gruesome-in one scene, an elderly woman is suspended from a hook. My editor wrote in the margin beside it, “Holy Cow! This is gruesome!” But didn’t ask me to take it out. And across the board, in every country, that book has consistently outsold the others.

    I toned it down considerably in later novels, however. And now that I’ve writing YA, the truly grisly stuff all tends to happen off camera, so to speak. But it’s still in there. In my September release, you find out why you should never tick off someone who owns a boat and crab pots, for example 😉

  24. Howdy from the polar opposite of the place where Clare said howdy from, that being Alaska.

    I don’t recalled being betrayed by an author’s use violence, rolling heads can be a useful tool afterall, just as the Aztecs or the Mayans, or Pol Pot. There are some things that will turn me off to a persons writing though, constant use of F-bombs, and graphically depicted sex are two such things. I’m by no means a prude, I was in the Marines where F-bombs are used as punctuation by a large percentage of folks. But when the dialogue of a book is filled with swearing like that I feel like a writer has let it slip that he/she doesn’t actually know how to write dialogue and is just going for shock effect to make themself sound cool without actual content.

    Likewise with sex. I just finished narrating a crime thriller that actually had a fair amount of sex in it, but it was almost all inuendo. The descriptions were less than a few lines without having to describe anything in detail. Too much description takes me right out of the story for no good reason.

    Maybe its just me. Cuz rolling heads and split guts and even dead animals doesn’t bother me. Dead kids, makes me mad though. Keep that to a limit.

    Anyway, howdy from the great white north.

    we’re 3.3 inches away from record snowfall in Anchorage, 129.6 inches on the ground right now, and we just got a forecast for up to two inches tomorrow night…record books here we come.

  25. Basil–Oh, ouch! I’m out of the running w/ my first book, given that it features a little ghost girl. (Not a graphic death, thank goodness.) I’m so with you on the issue of gratuitous F-bombs. I know that characters will tend to demand to speak however they will, but it’s tempting to just tune those characters out completely. Stay cozy up there!

    Michelle–What a great story–You’re the perfect example of a writer who makes it all work! Thanks so much for letting me come and visit today. I’ve enjoyed hearing everyone’s stories of blood, betrayal, death, and hacksaws. The Kill Zone and its commenters are the best!

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